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STAMP CORNER - VIRGIN ISLANDS

The Virgin Islands are part of the chain of rocky outcrops that separate the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and were discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 in the course of his second voyage to the western world.

He named the largest island St.Ursula in honour of the 5th Century martyr of that name while he referred to the myriad outlying islets as her “Eleven Thousand Virgins”.
Legend has it that Ursula and a second Christian nun, Undecimella, were murdered by the Huns in the German city of Cologne. It appears that a chronicler, in transcribing an original text in Latin, mistakenly recorded the second name as Undecim mille, which would translate as eleven thousand and gave rise to the concept of St.Ursula and her 11 000 virgins.
Be that as it may, to this day the coat-of-arms of this British colony shows St.Ursula with a lamp in her right hand while she is flanked on either side by eleven other lamps, each representing one thousand virgins.
In 1867, a one-shilling stamp was printed for the colony by the firm of Nissen & Parker in London. The basic stamp was lithographed in rose-carmine while the figure of St.Ursula in black was added typographically in the centre of the design. There are in existence an extremely small number of copies of this stamp that are missing the second element of the printing operation, a variety that is known popularly and perhaps not surprisingly as the “Missing Virgin”. Naturally enough, examples of the stamp command an enormously high premium whenever they are offered for sale; at auction in June 2011, a copy cost the successful bidder £144 000, say about US$230 000.
Sadly, the “Missing Virgin” is not amongst the stamps used to frank the letter in my collection. It was posted from the island of Tortola, formerly St.Ursula, on the 13th of March 1902 and reached the island of St.Thomas in what would then have been the Danish West Indies on the 20th of the month. From there it was a further eleven days at sea before arriving in New York and finally reached its ultimate destination of Newark, New Jersey, on the 1st of April. These dates can be established from the hand stamps of the various registration offices through which the letter passed en route and which have been struck on the back of the cover. The eastern section of the archipelago now basks in the rather grand name of the “Virgin Islands of the United States of America” having been purchased from Denmark in 1917 for the sum of US$25 million.
The stamps of the British Virgin Islands, together with those of Antigua, Dominica, Montserrat, Nevis and St.Christopher were superseded in 1890 by the general issue for the Leeward Islands. However, in acknowledgement of a complaint that the withdrawal of her own stamps resulted in a loss of revenue for the colony, distinctive issues were resumed for the Virgin Islands in 1899 and the stamps on this cover are from a set printed by the British firm of De La Rue in January of that year. It cost the sender the then not inconsiderable sum of one shilling and five pence halfpenny to post his registered letter but it is suspected that he had more than half an eye on the “philatelic” appearance of the envelope. He could have achieved the same franking with just four stamps; a one-shilling, a four-penny, one penny and one halfpenny. Beauty, as they say though, is in the eye of the beholder and, as a philatelist, I find this to be a most attractive cover.


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